The title of Kwame Onwuachi’s remarkable memoir, “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” riffs on the name of a slim volume penned more than 15 years ago: “Letters to a Young Chef,” in which French farm boy turned Michelin man Daniel Boulud doles out advice to those with the nerve, masochism and heart to carve out a career in a professional kitchen.
The two books could be mirror images of one another: Boulud’s letters offer a kind of softcover mentorship, as a white elder statesman shares the hard lessons he has absorbed, in both muscle and mind, with the chefs who will succeed him. Onwuachi’s narrative, by contrast, confronts the hard realities of a world often stacked against him. Boulud assumes everyone who cracks open his book has an equal opportunity within the meritocracy of a fine-dining kitchen. Onwuachi assumes nothing, understanding that seeming meritocracies can still be infected with the silent racism that holds back people of color.
If “Letters to a Young Chef” provides a sober perspective of what lies ahead for chefs, “Notes From a Young Black Chef” looks back on the difficult path that one tough kid from the Bronx took to reach his goal: becoming a chef in charge of a fine-dining restaurant, Kith and Kin inside the InterContinental at the Wharf, which has earned him the respect of critics and a new James Beard Award nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Like Boulud’s book, Onwuachi’s memoir should be required reading, not just for future chefs, but for anyone who wants a glimpse into one man’s tale of what it’s like to be young, black and ambitious in America.
Onwuachi, 29, is the only son of a marriage that wasn’t meant to be. His mother, Jewel Robinson, became a chef and caterer after she lost her job as an accountant. His father, Patrick Onwuachi, is an architect whose own father was a respected professor at Howard University, prominent in the Pan-Africanism movement. Young Onwuachi’s life in the Bronx was a world of aromas — seafood gumbo and jambalaya from his mom’s side of the family in Louisiana; egusi stew and jerk chicken wings from his father’s side in Nigeria and Jamaica; even South Indian curries from a neighbor in the apartment building where he lived.
Onwuachi’s life was also filled with terror. After his parents divorced when he was young, Onwuachi sometimes spent the weekend with his father, who lived 20 minutes away. His father, Onwuachi writes, taped a poster board to a wall in the kitchen. Every time young Onwuachi committed an “infraction” — it could be as minor as sloppy handwriting — the child would have to mark an X on the chart. When Onwuachi “earned” enough infractions, his father would beat him with a wooden-handled whip that the elder bought in Africa.
“My father beat me on my arms until the braided leather lacerated the skin,” Onwuachi writes. “Once he beat me so hard, the whip broke, and he made me repair it with duct tape.”
The child kept the beatings private. He didn’t tell his mother about them. He thought it was normal. Instead, Onwuachi writes, he would return home from his father’s apartment and lock himself in a closet, which literally served as his bedroom. “No wonder I fought with everyone over everything,” Onwuachi reflects.
His father thought he wouldn’t amount to much, and the world around Onwuachi was only too happy to reinforce the idea. Teachers and cops viewed him with suspicion, and eventually he seemed to fulfill their expectations. He stirred up trouble, enough that his mother packed him off to live with his paternal grandfather, who had moved back to Nigeria, where he was an elder among the Igbo people. Robinson wanted her son to learn respect. Onwuachi learned respect, but he also learned about his ancestors and how he carries their spirit everywhere, even to America, where it is routinely devalued.
The general outline of Onwuachi’s life has been reported by countless publications, including this one. The chef has been telling his story in broad strokes even before he opened Shaw Bijou, his much-hyped tasting-menu restaurant that cratered in a matter of months, the result of naivete and underfinancing. There’s Onwuachi, the son who first learned to cook from his mother. There’s Onwuachi, the teenager who sold candy on the subway to fund his catering company. There’s Onwuachi, the “Top Chef” contestant who wanted to open the “best restaurant in Washington, D.C.” There’s Onwuachi, the chef who flamed out with his first restaurant but emerged from the ashes with Kith and Kin.
There were also missing pieces, as we would come to find out.
Credit journalist Joshua David Stein, co-author of “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” who spent a couple of years in Onwuachi’s orbit, learning, observing and teasing out anecdotes from a chef who had previously scrubbed the unflattering details from his story. In prose both hard and lyrical, we learn about Onwuachi’s flirtation with gangs as a teen. His drug dealing in college. His encounters with racism, including his stint at Eleven Madison Park, a three-star Michelin restaurant where the chef de cuisine apparently thwarted Onwuachi’s rise in the kitchen. We even learn the ugly details behind the collapse of Shaw Bijou.
Onwuachi names names, too, which has already generated industry discussion, even though the memoir won’t officially drop until April 9. But Onwuachi is selective in calling out people. He provides the cloak of anonymity to a television producer who apparently told Onwuachi that America isn’t ready for a black chef who does fine dining.
The racism charges will generate headlines, of course, but these incidents are symptoms of larger systemic forces that Onwuachi has battled throughout his young life. What’s inspiring about Onwuachi’s story is his fierce belief in himself and his path, even as people tried to break him or shape him in their preferred image. There is a spirit in Onwuachi, shaped by some potent combination of Bronx toughness, Igbo ancestors and a mother’s love.
By Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein
Knopf. 288 pp. $26